Feisty old Jimmy Caci sat in the U.S. District Court cafeteria and practiced his excuses. He was a few minutes from being sent to prison for six months for a minor role in the FBI's investigation into traditional organized crime in Las Vegas. It was April 2001, and Caci was a 75-year-old reputed capo in the Los Angeles crime family headed by Peter Milano.
I took a seat next to him and his attorney, Don Green, and listened to the slippery septuagenarian rehearse his lines and polish his alibis. He was no mobster, he said. He was misunderstood. He had a reputation he didn't deserve, but one he couldn't live down.
To hear him tell it, he wasn't organized; he was stigmatized. The man born Dominic Vincent Caci in 1925 told me he was a certified victim of circumstance and sneaky federal informants.
"Actually, I don't even know how I got indicted," Caci said. "When I talk, I might give the impression I'm a wiseguy, but it's not true. It's a stigma that's stayed with me. They were looking to make a name for themselves and wanted to use me to do it. They figure they got a big package here, but I wasn't doing anything. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a gangster. I'm not a Mafia guy."
He also wasn't very convincing, but I couldn't fault him for taking a shot.
I was reminded of the conversation after reading Internet reports of Caci's death Aug. 16 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 86.
Part of Caci's trouble was his criminal track record. It followed him wherever he went. Armed robbery, conspiracy and wire fraud convictions tend to do that. Not to mention the loan-sharking and illegal bookmaking arrests he had incurred over the years.
He'd committed some offenses, he admitted, but there were things Jimmy Caci wouldn't do.
"Narcotics? It ain't my cup of tea. Pimps and whores? Not my cup of tea. Fleecing old people? Never in a million years -- you understand?"
Yes. But then there was the company he kept. Caci rarely strayed from mob members and associates, and even his brother, the Palm Springs nightclub crooner Bobby Milano, was considered a soldier in the L.A. family.
To make matters worse, spoilsport FBI undercover agents and informants had overheard Caci's tough-guy routine many times. Jimmy wasn't shy when it came to threatening illegal bookmakers, telemarketers and anyone else he thought he could put the arm on. If everyone Caci threatened had actually died, they would have had to bury the bodies three deep at Forest Lawn.
Former L.A. mob underboss Anthony Fiato dealt with Caci in the early 1980s. Fiato, now a relocated witness, got an earache listening to him make with the George Raft patter.
"Jimmy had a hair-trigger temper, but he fired blanks," Fiato says.
Caci wasn't shy about trying to intimidate L.A.-area California bookies. Extorting criminals reluctant to run to the police for help had been his specialty. But Southern California bookies are notorious snitches, and Caci found little success.
Fiato recalls the time Caci had a restaurant sit-down with a bookmaker and delivered his best stone-faced threat. The bookmaker laughed and asked, "What are you gonna do, put a horse's head in my bed?"
You'll read on the Internet where Caci ran a criminal empire from Palm Springs, Fiato says, "but that makes him sound like Scarface Al." Caci was active as a younger man, and he paid the price in prison time. When he got older, he pursued the trappings of the Mafia life and made some scores, Fiato adds, "but when it came to being a tough guy, he was just kidding himself."
In his own way, maybe the old man was telling the truth in the courthouse cafeteria.
Then again, he was Jimmy Caci, notorious mobster. Who could tell for sure?
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.